SELLING YOUR SOUL
A Review of Andrew Kimbrell's The Human Body Shop
When we hear someone has sold their soul, we think perhaps of a demon and a guy named Faust or maybe of a Marxist classmate (er, I mean schoolmate) who took a job serving corporate interests to make big money. Similarly, the thought of someone selling their body conjures up images of drug-woozy prostitutes on Tenth Avenue. We feel sorry for these people because they have given up a very important part of themselves.
But, as Andrew Kimbrell forcefully argues in The Human Body Shop, Harper Collins (1993) our society has put itself on a slippery slope in which in which many “respectable” people also sell parts of themselves and/or place their body parts in a market to be sold by well-paid, high tech merchants. Although society has legitimized these sales, Kimbrell asks whether it is any less destructive of humanity to have people sell parts of themselves than it would be in the Faustian context or in the conventionally-defined realm of prostitution.
He begins by discussing blood donations and sales. While we take these practices for granted, they have only been common since the late 1940s. For millennia before that, blood was considered mystical and personal. Now, many people donate blood or blood “components.” In Somoza’s Nicaragua, blood was repeatedly taken from political prisoners and exported for profit. In America, we’re more enlightened. Instead of holding people down and sticking needles in their arms, we provide market incentives like high rents to induce “voluntary” donations. So many Americans sell their blood plasma that America is known as the OPEC of blood plasma.
Organ transplantation has created a demand for a pool of “serviceable” organs. Organ donations were scarce until the early 1980s, in large part because the recipients seldom survived. In China, organs from executed political prisoners are sold for profit. And many poor people “voluntarily” sell organs. Wealthy expatriates go to India to buy kidneys from poor natives. Some advocate increasing organ donations by paying people to agree to yield organs upon death. A generation inured to such practices may only be able to literally interpret songs like “My Heart Belongs to You” or “I Left my Heart in San Francisco.” OK, so these tunes are kind of schmaltzy, but what fulfillment is there when love and devotion are considered just a manifestation of biochemicals and social constructs? Crank up the Nirvana. Pass the Everclear and the shotgun.
Taking organ donation one horrific step beyond, abortion clinics have often sold aborted human fetuses so that fetal parts can be used in medical experiments. Sorry, but I can’t joke about that.
Kimbrell discusses sperm and egg sales and womb rentals (a.k.a., surrogate motherhood). In our society, many people don’t think twice about the ontological questions raised by these reproductive technologies. Sperm banks are prime comedian fodder. But exalting fun can diminish joy.
A casual approach to reproduction has huge human costs. In addition to the immediate pain associated with egg donation, many women who donate eggs experience fertility problems of their own from the difficult process of egg extraction and subsequent psychological problems because wonder what became of “their” child. Early returns show that many of the marriages of children conceived from donated gametes are strained because the parents don’t share equally in the child’s being. Kimbrell observes that many of the children born of what he calls “technological adultery” have profound identity crises and a depressing sense that their “parent” was willing to sell them for a fee.
The final frontier in, or affront, presented by, the human body market is genetic engineering. Human and animal genes and entire animals themselves are being patented. Further, genetic testing provides information-- including gender-- that enables parents to select which embryos they will allow to be born and which they will throw away, perhaps to be profitably recycled by the pregnancy Terminator. Researchers are striving to develop techniques that allow them to modify people’s genetic heritage by, for example, attaching gene sequences to injectable viruses. Hey, guys, take the week off.
Kimbrell explains that the commodification of humans is the result of the confluence of two forces, market economics and reductionist science, that, although relatively recent additions to human history, have become the gods of many. We are taught to revere market advocates like Smith and Locke, and scientists like Galileo, Newton and Kepler. But Kimbrell opines that they have hurt humanity more than they have helped because, when people are viewed, and view themselves, as machines, they can do terrible things to each other. A chief element of military combat training is to persuade soldiers that their enemies are inhuman. If one thinks of human beings as machines, why should one feel sorrow when a bus or plane full of such machines is “put out of service?”
I have often donated blood and, until recently, I had willed all of my organs for transplantation. But, after considering the commodification of body parts, the growth of the medical juggernaut and the disturbing emergence of the reprotech and bioengineering industries, I am rethinking these decisions. Lives should have a natural life span, and, in a world where hundreds of millions of people lack enough to eat or clean water to drink, more lives could be saved if the dollars and effort that were spent on these efforts to tamper with life were spent instead to better the lives of the poor.
Besides, it will give people one less reason to run me over with their cars.